Aziz Tajuddin witnesses the richness of interfaith harmony every time he looks around the table during extended family gatherings.
Tajuddin, a retired Laurens County chemical engineer who practices the Baha’i faith, is married to an Episcopalian. His grown children also have been raised in the Christian faith. His sister-in-law from Louisiana is Roman Catholic. A niece from Charlotte is Muslim, the faith he was born into, and her husband is Jewish.
“So there is my interfaith activity,” said Tajuddin, who is active in the nonprofit Interfaith Partners of South Carolina.
As South Carolina marks Interfaith Harmony Month, Tajuddin is among dozens of people of faith who will be engaged in outreach this month to promote education and dialogue among those who practice different faith traditions.
After four decades of interfaith conversations in South Carolina, advocates say an understanding of world faiths, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Baha’i, among others, is richer than ever.
While the state and the South remain predominantly Christian and Protestant, the growing diversity in the population has created a climate of acceptance of different religions, said Carl Evans, retired USC religion professor and a catalyst for much of the interfaith initiatives since the 1970s and 1980s.
“What I’m finding is there is growing interest in interfaith work, a growing realization that interfaith work is especially important as our Protestant society becomes more religiously diverse,” Evans said. “Without interfaith work, we run the risk of developing misunderstandings and perhaps even fear of those who are different from us. Those who are involved in faith see it as a contribution to the common good.”
What began after the Catholic church’s Second Vatican Council as an emphasis on dialogue among Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews has evolved into more nuanced talks as the state has become home to people who practice lesser-known faiths, he said.
That emphasis on globalism will be especially felt in coming days as organizations recognize Interfaith Harmony Month and World Interfaith Harmony Week. The week was established by the United Nations in 2010 at the suggestion of King Abdullah II of Jordan and is traditionally marked during the first week in February.
Gov. Nikki Haley has declared January as S.C. Interfaith Harmony Month, apparently the only state in the country to officially recognize interfaith dialogue. She noted in the official proclamation that “affirming our commitment to interfaith harmony, religious liberty, and tolerance for diverse traditions and beliefs contributes to our continued strength and prosperity.”
Arunima Sinha, a Hindu who has been deeply involved in interfaith activities for the past two decades in South Carolina, said she sees her interfaith work as “developing spiritual potential.”
As a child in India, she remembered sailing little boats fashioned from newsprint during the rainy season with her childhood friends who encompassed any number of faith traditions, from the predominant Hindus, to Muslims, Jainists and Zoroastians.
“They were all little hands together,” she said. “We would all clap and we wanted all out boats to make it.”
Sinha settled in South Carolina with her physician husband 40 years ago and since that time she said she has been open to people asking about her Hindu faith, her traditional Indian clothing and even the bindi, the “third eye” she paints in the middle of her forehead each morning.
“At times, you feel people are judgmental,” she said. “The purpose of interfaith relations is to truly help create that atmosphere of compassion, good will and love.”
On Thursday, compassion was the theme of January’s meeting of Women of Many Faiths, a Columbia organization that seeks to build, through personal relationships, a greater understanding of faith. The gathering included Protestants, Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Buddhists, Baha’is and unaffiliated spiritual seekers and was marked by a spirit of fellowship that they hope will spread through the community.
“Aren’t we blessed by the diversity among us?” said Sister Nancy Hendershot, a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine who is retired from Providence Hospital.
Hendershot told the group she believes compassion cannot be truly felt until people recognize the humanity inside all people. “It can’t be done without someone’s heart being involved,” she said. “It is rooted in respect for the person.”
That extends to the lowliest among us, said Ethel Crawford, co-chair of the organization who practices the Baha’i faith. “When we see a human being curled up in a doorway we don’t ask how did you get there.” Instead, she said, you find a way to ease their spirit, rather through provisions of food and clothing or through mental health assistance. “Compassion can be very healing if we go out and help others.”
Tajuddin, the Laurens County retiree, said he is so appreciative of religious tolerance in America having grown up in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, as a Shia Muslim and witnessing persecution between Muslim sects and between Muslims and Hindus.
“I grew up with a lot more non-acceptance of somebody’s else’s faith,” Tajuddin, 62, who retired as vice president of research and development for Kemet Electronics, said. “If you were a Sunni, Shias persecuted you, and if you were a Shia, Sunnis persecuted you.”
“When I came to this country I was not a practicing Musliim,” he said. “I believe in the faith. I believed in Islam. I just had trouble accepting how it was practiced. I was searching for something that had more meaning,” he said. “If you believe in a supreme creator, a God or Allah, I had a problem accepting the fact that 1.2 billion Chinese who are Buddhist would not be saved. I was looking for something that made more sense in terms of the entire population of the world. And the Baha’i faith gave me that.”
The Baha’i faithful rever all prophets from the ages, including Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha, and believe in continuing revelation to bring all peoples of the world together.
“More people accept me,” Tajuddin said. “Some people ask questions, some are hesitant to ask questions and some will ask and will decide that is not what they want to hear.”
Evans said Columbia, Greenville and Charleston all have thriving organizations that promote interfaith dialogue.
“There is an interfaith forum of the Upstate in Greenville that has been ongoing for 15 years or more,” Evans said, “and Charleston has a Christian-Jewish group that has been in existence for almost 40 years.”
Muslims, particularly after 9/11, saw the need to explain their faith, Evans said, resulting in more conversations.
For years, Partners in Dialogue was the main conduit for such activities in the capital city. Evans said Bishop Herman Yoos, leader of the S.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was instrumental in pushing for the establishment of Interfaith Partners of South Carolina in February 2011.
“So there is activity going on around the state.”